Ryan Speck’s Review of ECCLESIASTES: LIFE IN A FALLEN WORLD, by Benjamin Shaw

Published on August 31, 2020 by Benjamin J. Montoya

Banner of Truth, 2019 | 168 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

By Ryan Speck


About the Author

Benjamin Shaw was the Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary until 2019 (at the time this commentary was published). He is currently the Professor of Old Testament at Reformation Bible College in sunny Florida.

Having received theological degrees from Pittsburgh Seminary, from Princeton Seminary, and from Bob Jones University—yet teaching at a Reformed, Presbyterian seminary for 28 years—Shaw’s academic history and theological training are as diverse and fascinating as his own interests and personality. I should know. He was my seminary professor for four years. I cannot imagine a man better suited to write a commentary on this enigmatic book of Ecclesiastes, which takes a hard look at reality and deals frankly with such a diversity of topics.



Given Shaw’s expertise in Hebrew and in the Old Testament as well as his experience in teaching and pastoring, he wrote this commentary to shed new light upon the interpretation of Ecclesiastes, while remaining accessible to non-specialists.



Shaw divides this Ecclesiastes commentary into 22 Chapters, especially connecting these chapter divisions and themes to Genesis 1-5 (pp. 10-11), suggesting that the writer of Ecclesiastes might have been meditating upon the opening chapters of Genesis while thinking through the issues of Ecclesiastes and while writing his own book.

  1. The Five Ws: 1:1-3 (pp. 1-12)
  2. The Earth Abides, Men Do Not: 1:4-11 (pp. 13-18)
  3. The Fruit of the Fruit: 1:12-2:11 (pp. 19-24)
  4. The Failure of Wisdom: 2:12-17 (pp. 25-26)
  5. The Curse of Labour: 2:18-23 (pp. 27-30)
  6. The First Respite: 2:24-26 (pp. 31-34)
  7. Turn, Turn, Turn, or Time and Eternity: 3:1-15 (pp. 35-46)
  8. Corruption: I’ve Got Friends in High Places: 3:16-22 (pp. 47-52)
  9. Oppression: 4:1-16 (pp. 53-60)
  10. Fear God: 4:17-5:6 (pp. 61-66)
  11. The Problem of Stuff: 5:7-17 (pp. 67-74)
  12. Recommendation Redux: 5:18-19 (pp. 75-78)
  13. The Evil of Life: 6:1-9 (pp.75-78)
  14. The Problem of Man: 6:10-12 (pp. 85-88)
  15. Proverbs Contrasting Wisdom and Folly: 7:1-12 (pp. 89-98)
  16. The Limitations of Wisdom: 7:13-29 (pp. 99-108)
  17. The Practical Use of Wisdom: 8:1-17 (pp. 109-122)
  18. In Light of the Limits of Wisdom: 9:1-17 (pp. 123-132)
  19. Proverbial Wisdom: 9:18-10:20 (pp. 133-142)
  20. Planning for the Future: 11:1-6 (pp. 143-146)
  21. Summary of Life: 11:7-12:8 (pp. 147-152)
  22. Afterword: 12:9-14 (pp. 153-156)



Shaw maintains that Ecclesiastes is part of the inspired canon of Scripture, has a clear message, fits into the rest of the Bible, and can be understood by the non-specialist. The message of Ecclesiastes answers this question: “As one who believes in the God of the Bible, what may I expect from life in a fallen world, and how am I to live as a redeemed person in a fallen world?” (p. viii).



In the first section (Ecclesiastes 1:1-3, on pages 1-11), Shaw answers introductory questions, namely, The Five Ws, which are:

  • Who wrote Ecclesiastes? Solomon, p. 3.
  • When was Ecclesiastes written? The last decade of Solomon’s reign, between 940-930 BC, p. 5.
  • Where was it written? In the peaceful time of the united kingdom of Israel under Solomon.
  • What does Solomon present in Ecclesiastes? Ecclesiastes, according to Shaw, is not about the uselessness or vanity of life without God; it is about the relative value of life in a fallen world. Accordingly, Shaw identifies four themes, which are tied to four significant words, namely: (1) “vanity” refers to that which is passing because this temporary life and world are insubstantial and fleeting; (2) “gain” or “profit” speaks to the value of such a fleeting life; (3) “labour” suggests the painful toil that came about because of the Fall; and (4) “under the sun … means the here and now, the life that we can access by our senses.”
  • Why does Solomon write Ecclesiastes? “He wants the reader to see life in all its complexity, its difficulty, its evanescence, its disappointment, its frustration” (p. 8) so that man will not take life too seriously or too lightly.

Throughout the rest of the commentary, Shaw carefully dissects the thought process of Solomon in Ecclesiastes (using his own translations and delving into the interpretation of specific Hebrew words), illustrates the truth of Ecclesiastes with a variety of historical, cultural, and biblical examples, and applies the truth of God’s Word to Christians today. Refusing to soften the blow of Ecclesiastes, Shaw confronts us with its uncomfortable truths, honoring Solomon’s intention to compel us to look unflinchingly at the painful reality of life in a fallen world and ask the hard questions about life’s real value.

It is difficult to summarize the variety of lessons and interpretations found throughout this commentary. However, to provide the reader some sense of its value and interest, consider some of these quotes:

  • Referring to the question of how valuable our work really is, Shaw writes: “That question ought to sit in the back of our minds, occasionally calling attention to it, like a tooth that sometimes aches” (pp. 9-10).
  • Regarding how the phrase “nothing new under the sun” applies even to technology today, Shaw explains: “what is a machine gun but a really sophisticated, and really effective, rock thrower?” (p. 15).
  • “So when this vision of life brings you frustration and disappointment, remember that Christ did not come to make you successful in this life, but to save you from its fallenness (and yours), and to bring you into a world where nothing is ordinary and where everything is new!” (p. 17).
  • “In other words, in this life, some things cannot be fixed. Yet wisdom seeks to fix all things. So wisdom is frustrated in that it cannot achieve its goal” (p. 21).
  • “‘And I hated life’ (2:17) is the cry if the child who has just discovered that life is not fair. It is a true cry that adults have learned to stifle, and that is why Qoheleth’s blunt statement of it makes us uncomfortable” (p. 26).
  • “Only God, who knows the future, can show him. And at this point in time God is not telling” (p. 51).
  • “But corruption in government is as impossible to erase as is corruption in the human heart” (p. 54).
  • “Solomon draws the contrast between the man who comes to the house of God to listen, and the man who comes to the house of God merely to offer sacrifice” (pp. 62-63).
  • “Some men enjoy their labour. Others do not. But those who enjoy their labour are not just lucky. They haven’t just picked the right occupation. They have received a gift from God. . . . Men, because they are sinners, want more. They think they deserve more. The man who fears God realizes that he does not deserve more, he deserves less. So whatever he does have, he takes delight in it as a gift from God. May we all so respond to the simple gifts that God gives us!” (p. 76).
  • “As Jacob took to heart Joseph’s dreams (Gen. 37) and as Mary treasured in her heart the things said about Jesus (Luke 2), so the wise man holds on to the ultimate truth of his own certain death” (pp. 90-91).
  • “What he has found is that one man among a thousand he has been able to understand, but he does not understand women at all” (p. 106).
  • “I call it ‘karma theology.’ It was the theology of Job’s friends. It was the theology of the Pharisees. It was the theology of the disciples in John 9 . . .” (p. 118).



Overall, I found this book to be extremely valuable, revealing insightful interpretations of Ecclesiastes and provoking thoughts about my own life. Am I fully convinced of Shaw’s primary interpretation of Ecclesiastes—that Solomon takes a cold, hard look at the reality of life in a fallen world, seeking to find value in it for the believer? Not necessarily, but I will re-read and re-consider this interpretation if I teach or preach through Ecclesiastes. For, Shaw’s commentary significantly challenged my previous view of Ecclesiastes, namely, that it presented the vanity of life without God and so composed, essentially, an evangelistic tract (e.g., Sinclair Ferguson, The Pundit’s Folly).

Furthermore, while this book was written for “non-specialists,” nonetheless, the reader must really work to understand the deep truths Shaw explains. He does not present cookie-cutter truths in bite-size pieces. He explains profoundly difficult truths that arise out of the hard reality of life in a sinful world. Yet, helpfully, at times Shaw does interject apt illustrations from movies (e.g., Arbitrage, p. 29), TV (e.g., Breaking Bad, p. 93), theatre (e.g., “Your Arms Too Short to Box with God,” p. 43), literature (e.g., Lex Mosaica, p. 16), history (e.g., WWI and the Great Depression, p. 101), and his own life (e.g., his professor, p. 73).

Likewise, while Shaw does not use Hebrew script in this book, he certainly does discuss the Hebrew at length, in such a way that, given careful attention, any reader may understand. Nonetheless, understanding is labor intensive at times, but well worth it. For example, in discussing Ecclesiastes 2:25, Shaw notes: “There is a Hebrew verb (hush) that means to hasten, and there is another Hebrew verb (hush) that means to enjoy. If that sounds confusing, think of the English words ‘lead’ (a verb meaning to direct) and ‘lead’ (a noun meaning a kind of metal). It is possible that in the early seventeenth century when the KJV was produced the translators were not aware of the second root meaning, to enjoy (which occurs perhaps only here). Or they may have thought that ‘hasten’ made more sense in the context” (p. 32). Thus, Shaw provides the non-specialist accessible insight into the original languages, but the reader must work to understand these insights at times.

If you were attempting to compose a sermon or lesson from each of Shaw’s chapters, you would find extremely helpful raw material to use. However, you would need to shape this material into your own lesson—especially if you intended to provide hope and comfort in each lesson or sermon. You would have a solid explanation of the text and several strands of thought to follow. You would even have, at times, ready-made illustrations and examples. Yet, ordinarily, Shaw concisely states the matter, leaving the reader to put most of the flesh on the bare-bones principle he exposes.

Anyone who likes to see every detail of interpretation nailed down will be frustrated when Shaw gives the options of interpreting a verse or passage but does not provide a conclusion, which he does a number of times in this book. For example, Shaw cites two possibilities for one translation, leaving it at that: “If we take it as saying ‘more than I’ the meaning is that Solomon is asking who, more than he, can enjoy things. He is in the greatest position to do so, being unencumbered by consideration of cost. If it says ‘apart from him’ the meaning is that apart from God there is no possibility of enjoyment. Enjoyment is a gift of God and is to be received as such” (p. 33; cf. pp. 23-24, 117, 121, 144).

Shaw’s book is profoundly useful in its succinct, insightful interpretation of Ecclesiastes, providing the reader with much raw material to work with in order to rightly understand and apply its lessons to your own life.


Ryan Speck is Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Columbia, MO, and is Review Editor for Theology here at Books At a Glance.

Buy the books


Banner of Truth, 2019 | 168 pages

Share This

Share this with your friends!